28 July 2007


In an era of tremendous gains by the extremely wealthy alongside pretty much flat gains by poorer workers, Edwards call for a repeal of Shrub's tax-relief for the wealthy makes perfect sense. It's interesting to see even so-called left-leaning papers like the L.A. Times describe Edwards' platform as risky and radical. Edwards, we are told, would face anger by the maligned constituency. Who are we talking about? People who make more than 3 or 4 million a year and own islands in the Bahamas? There must be more of these people than I imagined. Or at least more of them that own newspapers.

27 July 2007

Energy from the sun

At The Oil Drum Robert Rapier argues biomass energy has a very limited role to play as compared to solar photovoltaics. (Of photovoltaics isn't as exciting if you're a large-scale farmer looking for a subsidy.)

The fundamental problem here is that photosynthesis is not very efficient. Consider the rapeseed oil yield above. Gilgamesh made a table that is basically the solar capture/conversion to oil from various crops. The gist is that only a few hundredths of a percent of the incoming solar energy gets converted into liquid fuels. Of course some did get converted into other biomass, which could be otherwise used for energy, but generally we get a very low capture of the sun's energy for use as liquid fuels. (This exercise can still be proven by assuming the theoretical limit for photosynthesis. One must just make more assumptions and it is not as easy to follow for a general audience).

Consider instead direct solar capture. Let's not even consider the record 40+% efficiency that Spectrolab announced last year. Let's not consider any of the more exotic technologies that are pushing the envelope on direct solar capture efficiency. BP's run of the mill silicon solar cells operate with an efficiency of 15%. That's about 250 times better than the solar to rapeseed oil route. Or, to put it a different way, you can produce the same amount of energy with direct solar capture in a 13 ft. by 13 ft. area that you can by photosynthesis in 1 acre of rapeseed. And odds are that you have a roof with an area that size, which could be used to capture energy without the need to use arable land.

Rapier has reached the same conclusion I've preached for years: We need to develop the technology we need to shift to electric power for transportation.

Of course the disadvantages are 1). The costs for solar are still relatively high; and 2). We have a liquid fuel infrastructure. But in the long run, I don't see that we have any chance of maintaining that infrastructure. If we are to embark on a Manhattan Project to get off of our petroleum dependence, we should direct our efforts toward an eventual electric transportation infrastructure.

Biomass energy will eat up too much land and agriculture will generate too much pollution with a poor ratio of Energy Return On Energy Invested (EROEI). Synthetically created photovoltaic materials will convert sunlight to energy far more efficiently than plants can manage. This fact might one day enable nanobots to outcompete DNA-based life. But for the foreseeable future the use of photovoltaics instead of biomass energy will protect nature.
Airplanes probably aren't going escape their use of liquid fuels when cars shift to electric power. So the relative cost of air transportation will rise vis a vis ground transportation. But overall the cost of transportation will fall once we can power vehicles off of electricity.

18 July 2007

Listening to the hum of the internets....

Trailing Edge Blog and Democracy for California suggest we throw the bums out. (Why does everyone already know who I'm talking about before I mention names? This is very telling, don't you think?)

Unfair Witness brings us some quotes from the troops (the undoctored versions):

"Because we have people up there in Congress with the brain of a 2-year-old who don’t know what they are doing — they don’t experience it. I challenge the president or anyone who has us for 15 months to ride alongside me,” Vassell said. “I [would] do another 15 months if he comes out here and rides along with me every day for 15 months. I’ll do 15 more months. They don’t even have to pay me extra."

And last but not least, Blonde Sense discusses terrorists (or perhaps a Middle Eastern plumber) walking through sewer pipes. (Fortunately, she watches Fox News so that we don't have to.)

16 July 2007

Appealing to Joe-Five-Pack

In an early attempt to appeal to the Joe-5-pack crowd (those red-blooded 'mericans who never saw a war they didn't like) the Democratic front-runners are trying their best to sound bellicose. Obama now says that:

America must urgently begin deploying from Iraq and take the fight more effectively to the enemy's home by destroying al-Qaida's leadership along the Afghan-Pakistan border.

Al Qaeda was initially formed with backing by the CIA beginning with Carter, and about the only reason anyone anywhere remembers the group is that Shrub has spent his entire two presidencies assuring the world that Osama has all the resources, power, and charisma of Beezlebub himself. And now we're supposed to leave Iraq and turn our attention to the Afghan border?

Obama! Afghan doesn't have oil. No one cares about it. You need to go back and take Geopolitics 101. If the U.S. sends its entire army chasing after one feeble Saudi rich-kid and fails to find him, we're going to make this guy into a hero for decades. Twenty years from now, they'll be selling Osama t-shirts on the LA beach front and writing movies about his daring escapades. Forget about appealing to Joe-5-pack. Joe won't vote for you anyway.

11 July 2007

Further joys of privatization

Is all of this really necessary? Could the money be better spent rebuilding some innercity school or something? Or better yet, why doesn't the FBI simply pay us all if we agree to record our conversations and then turn them in at the end of each month. That way we can do away with the middleman.

ABC: A proposed new FBI program would skirt federal laws by paying private companies to hold millions of phone and Internet records which the bureau is barred from keeping itself, experts say.

The $5 million project would apparently pay private firms to store at least two years' worth of telephone and Internet activity by millions of Americans, few of whom would ever be considered a suspect in any terrorism, intelligence or criminal matter.

The project would involve "the development of data storage and retrieval systems...for at least two years' worth of network calling records," according to an unclassified budget document posted to the FBI's Web site. The FBI did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

10 July 2007

Gonzales lied? (Exaggerated gestures of awe and shock...)

This doesn't surprise me at all:

The Washington Post reports today that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales made false statements to Congress while testifying about the Patriot Act. In his testimony, Gonzales claimed that "there has not been one verified case of civil liberties abuse," after being sent at least six government reports in the months preceding his testimony documenting extensive legal and procedural violations of the law.

This is why we don't need the Patriot Act or other legislation that gives the government free reign. Americans need to have a proper fear of government operations that take place away from the public eye. We can't trust people just because they have the right faux accent or process faith in the right church.

Krazy Oregonians

Nobody had better tell me that this guy's last name is just a coincidence:

BEND, Ore. - Last weekend, Kent Couch settled down in his lawn chair with some snacks — and a parachute. Attached to his lawn chair were 105 large helium balloons.

Destination: Idaho.

(That's all Idaho needs. Some . . . ah hem . . . more crazy people.)

With instruments to measure his altitude and speed, a global positioning system device in his pocket, and about four plastic bags holding five gallons of water each to act as ballast — he could turn a spigot, release water and rise — Couch headed into the Oregon sky.

Nearly nine hours later, the 47-year-old gas station owner came back to earth in a farmer's field near Union, short of Idaho but about 193 miles from home.

"When you're a little kid and you're holding a helium balloon, it has to cross your mind," Couch told the Bend Bulletin.

I must confess . . . this has crossed my mind.

"When you're laying in the grass on a summer day, and you see the clouds, you wish you could jump on them," he said. "This is as close as you can come to jumping on them. It's just like that."

Couch is the latest American to emulate Larry Walters — who in 1982 rose three miles above Los Angeles in a lawn chair lifted by balloons. Walters had surprised an airline pilot, who radioed the control tower that he had just passed a guy in a lawn chair. Walters paid a $1,500 penalty for violating air traffic rules.

It was Couch's second flight.

In September, he got off the ground for six hours. Like Walters, he used a BB gun to pop the balloons, but he went into a rapid descent and eventually parachuted to safety.

I think they teach that BB gun technique in Oregon flight schools.

This time, he was better prepared. The balloons had a new configuration, so it was easier to reach up and release a bit of helium instead of simply cutting off a balloon.

He took off at 6:06 a.m. Saturday after kissing his wife, Susan, goodbye and petting his Chihuahua, Isabella. As he made about 25 miles an hour, a three-car caravan filled with friends, family and the dog followed him from below.

Couch said he could hear cattle and children, and he said he even passed through clouds.
"It was beautiful — beautiful," he told KTVZ-TV. He described the flight as mostly peaceful and serene, with occasional turbulence, like a hot-air balloon ride sitting down.

Couch decided to stop when he was down to a gallon of water and just eight pounds of ballast. Concerned about the rugged terrain outside La Grande, including Hells Canyon, he decided it was time to land.

He popped enough balloons to set the craft down, although he suffered rope burns. But after he jumped out, the wind grabbed his chair, with his video recorder, and the remaining balloons and swept them away. He's hoping to get them back some day.

Brandon Wilcox, owner of Professional Air, which charters and maintains planes at the Bend airport, on Thursday confirmed Couch's flight. Wilcox said he flew a plane nearby while Couch traveled, and a passenger videotaped the flying lawn chair.

Whether Couch will take a third trip is up to his wife, and Susan Couch said she's thinking about saying no. But she said she was willing to go along with last weekend's trip.

"I know he'd be thinking about it more and more, it would always be on his mind," she said. "This way, at least he's fulfilled his dream."

9 July 2007

The never-ending story

It now appears that Powell's very "creative" discussion of the "facts" at the UN and his tireless push for war were really a charade. All along, he was actually trying to talk the prez out of going to war. All I can say is, Colin, go home. It's bad enough to be a liar; don't be a clown.

Support the troops?

Empire Notes has some good reflections on "supporting the troops":

. . . perhaps it is time for the left to put to rest the nonsensical slogan, “Support the troops, bring them home.” It is true, as crafters of this slogan have been at pains to point out, that the other side makes precious little sense either. Supporting the troops by not anticipating the dangers, waiting years to adapt Pentagon procurement practices so that they’re equipped as well as possible, and having psychologists deny them rights to combat-related disability benefits because of claims that their PTSD actually results from when their parents didn’t take them to the circus is not exactly in accord with the vernacular definition of “support.” I wouldn’t deny this. But I think their version still makes more sense than the antiwar movement’s version.“Support the troops, bring them home” sounds a lot to me like “Support the policemen, make sure they don’t have to fight crime” or “Support the ballerinas, keep them from performing dangerous dance steps that could lead to serious joint injuries.” If your daughter was a doctor fighting, say, a malaria epidemic, would you be “supporting” her by trying to get her called away?

Of course, it is true that, unlike said doctor, many of the soldiers want to leave. Do you mean “support the soldiers’ wishes?” Do you really think decisions about war and peace should be made by polling the military? I imagine not.

For whatever reason people join the U.S. military, the truth is that it exists to fight wars abroad. If we fought lots of noble wars abroad from disinterested humanitarian motives and nobody was killed (except, of course, for “bad guys”), and the countries we bombed were transformed into Sugar Candy Mountain, then perhaps that would be a noble goal. As it is, the last war we fought in which our participation was unequivocally a good thing (with lots of horrors embedded within it, of course) was World War II and at the start of that war we barely had a standing military. The purpose of the war machine created since then is not to defend what George Bush likes to call the “homeland.” Before 9/11, about 8% at most of the military budget was spent on anything potentially related to “defense.” The Army’s Northern Command was created only in 2002. A telling anecdote of Richard Clarke’s: in 1993, when the World Trade Center was bombed, a Naval attaché assisting him was unsure whether domestic attacks were part of the purview of the National Security Council.The muddled thinking embodied in this slogan is like that at the New York Times, where the editorial staff not long ago managed to say that, although Bush’s occupation of Iraq was clearly a terrible idea, we need a larger army. What do we need that army for if occupations are a bad idea? They couldn’t say.

The war in Iraq is not about to end soon, but it’s already time to look forward and consider the lessons we learn from it, as a nation. The story of the war has been told by a group of liberals for whom this is the one aberration from America’s exceptionalism: the one time we struck first, the one time we used torture, etc. When we use their language in order to be accepted, we forfeit our ability to tell a different story. The price of our intellectual liberty is eternal vigilance.

7 July 2007

Organic food IS healthier, after all

There seems to be a scientific basis for organic foods after all. Recent research found that:

Organic fruit and vegetables may be better for the heart and general health than eating conventionally grown crops, new research has found.

A ten-year study comparing organic tomatoes with standard produce found that they had almost double the quantity of antioxidants called flavonoids which help to prevent high blood pressure and thus reduce the likelihood of heart disease and strokes.

The article also discusses some of the mechanisms that lead to the organic veggies being healthier:

Plants produce flavonoids as a defence mechanism; they are triggered by nutrient deficiency. Feeding a plant with too many nutrients, such as inorganic nitrogen commonly found in conventional fertiliser, curbs the development of flavonoids. The lower levels of flavonoids in conventional tomatoes were caused by “over-fertilisation”, the research team concluded.

So eat your organic veggies before biting into that organic apple pie!

1 July 2007

Meditation under the microscope

A common meditation technique in Buddhism involves focusing the mind on simple sensation such as the breath or the rise and fall of the abdomen. When the mind wanders off, one is supposed to simply note what the mind is doing/feeling/thinking and then return to watching the breath. Scientists are discovering further evidence that such meditation produces actual changes in the way the brain functions:

Brain Scans Reveal Why Meditation Works

If you name your emotions, you can tame them, according to new research that suggests why meditation works.

Brain scans show that putting negative emotions into words calms the brain's emotion center. That could explain meditation’s purported emotional benefits, because people who meditate often label their negative emotions in an effort to “let them go.”

Psychologists have long believed that people who talk about their feelings have more control over them, but they don't know why it works.

UCLA psychologist Matthew Lieberman and his colleagues hooked 30 people up to functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machines, which scan the brain to reveal which parts are active and inactive at any given moment.

They asked the subjects to look at pictures of male or female faces making emotional expressions. Below some of the photos was a choice of words describing the emotion—such as “angry” or “fearful”—or two possible names for the people in the pictures, one male name and one female name.

When presented with these choices, the subjects were asked to pick the most appropriate emotion or gender-appropriate name to fit the face they saw.

When the participants chose labels for the negative emotions, activity in the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex region—an area associated with thinking in words about emotional experiences—became more active, whereas activity in the amygdala, a brain region involved in emotional processing, was calmed.

By contrast, when the subjects picked appropriate names for the faces, the brain scans revealed none of these changes—indicating that only emotional labeling makes a difference.
“In the same way you hit the brake when you’re driving when you see a yellow light, when you put feelings into words, you seem to be hitting the brakes on your emotional responses,” Lieberman said of his study, which is detailed in the current issue of Psychological Science.
In a second experiment, 27 of the same subjects completed questionnaires to determine how “mindful” they are.

Meditation and other “mindfulness” techniques are designed to help people pay more attention to their present emotions, thoughts and sensations without reacting strongly to them. Meditators often acknowledge and name their negative emotions in order to “let them go.”

When the team compared brain scans from subjects who had more mindful dispositions to those from subjects who were less mindful, they found a stark difference—the mindful subjects experienced greater activation in the right ventrolateral prefrontral cortex and a greater calming effect in the amygdala after labeling their emotions.

“These findings may help explain the beneficial health effects of mindfulness meditation, and suggest, for the first time, an underlying reason why mindfulness meditation programs improve mood and health,” said David Creswell, a UCLA psychologist who led the second part of the study, which will be detailed in Psychosomatic Medicine.